(Hint: Click the thumbnails above to see the full size image.)

The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu is a trip well worth making if you find yourself in Beijing. I came to China for a business trip, and scheduled a few extra days at the beginning and end of my trip to do some sightseeing. After all, it would be a shame to miss the opportunity! Unfortunately, my visit was in the middle of January and it’s quite cold (averaging 5 degrees F). But since I’m planning to move to Alaska later this year, I better start getting used to the cold, right? (In fact, my new home in Southeast Alaska is not normally as cold as Beijing, but that’s another story for another day.)

The day after my arrival in Beijing, I hired a driver to take me to Mutianyu. We left the hotel about 8 am and arrived about 9 am. There were not many people there, but it was early yet. For a while, I thought I was the only one visiting the Great Wall that day, but eventually more people arrived. Still, they were spaced out well enough along the Wall that I felt that I had the place to myself most of the time.

When I arrived at Mutianyu, I bought a ticket to ride the cable car up to the Wall [Photo #1].  You can hike up a path if you prefer, but the ticket was not very expensive and it’s best to save your energy for the Wall itself.

When the cable car delivered me to the Wall [Photo #2], I had to decide whether to go left or go right. As I looked to the left, I saw the wall winding along the top of the mountain and what appeared to be a long vertical stretch. To the right, I could see the wall go for miles and miles. There is a map at the entrance that gives you an idea of the path you can take to the left or right, although I don’t recall that it specified the distance. But it is clear that there is a limit to how far you can go.

I decided going to the left would be fun. If I could climb that vertical section of the wall (which turned out to be a very long staircase [Photo #5]), I was sure that I would have a fantastic view. It seemed like  a good idea at the time, but it turned out to be a very arduous trek up the side of a mountain. I have been exercising for a few months and thought I had reasonable stamina, but I found that I had to stop every 10 to 20 steps up that long staircase to let my heart rate settle down. I don’t know if the altitude was having an effect or if I’m just getting too old for this sort of thing. Whatever the reason, it was a challenge!

I was grateful to be alone for this part of my journey along the Wall. If there had been other people scampering up those stairs, I would have been demoralized and embarrassed. As I looked up the staircase from time to time to assess how much longer this effort was going to take me, I could see a head pop out from the tower and wave at me. Great, I thought. Someone IS watching me! I persevered, and made it to the tower only to find the last 20 steps required me to climb a very narrow and very steep set of stairs. Somehow the magnitude  of the elevation was more apparent to me by now, so it was with some trepidation that I pulled myself up those stairs, looking neither up nor down for fear of the view, and holding on tightly to the sides of the stairs. At last I made my way to the top of Hero Tower.

At the top were two women selling souvenirs, one of whom spoke English and the other who didn’t. The English-speaking woman asked me where I was from and why I was visiting China. I tried to say “business” but my mouth had apparently started to freeze up, so I wound up mumbling something that sounded like “bib-bib.” We all got a chuckle out of that. I had worn plenty of warm clothing for my excursion, but didn’t have my face covered and hadn’t even realized how cold it was. It’s not surprising to me now that people can easily become frostbitten without realizing it. Fortunately, I hadn’t been exposed for that long and no harm resulted.

Of course, the souvenir women wanted to sell me things. How could I resist? Anyone who could lug their wares up that staircase to make a few bucks – Chinese yuan or otherwise – deserved something for their efforts in my book. I did get a lower price than their starting offers, although I’m sure I’m sure I overpaid, not having yet mastered the art of bargaining. Oh, well. I’ll be shopping on another day of this trip and work on those bargaining skills.

The accessible part of the Wall ends at Hero Tower [Photo #6], so I contented myself with the view [Photo #7] for a while mustering up the energy to work my way back down the stairs. Apart from the 20 very steep stairs at the tower, the rest of the staircase was much easier to traverse on the way down. I made it back to my starting point and mulled how far I wanted to go in the other direction. After starting down that direction a while, which involved more stairs going down this time, I stopped to consider my options. If I continued on, I would have to walk back and by now my legs were starting to feel like spaghetti. I decided that the view was probably not much different from what I had seen thus far, and decided to call it a day.

I returned to the cable car and had one last look at the Wall as I descended the mountain [Photo #15]. To get to the parking lot, I had to run the gauntlet of vendors who had set up shop by this time. Again, I made some purchases. Again, I probably paid too much. Good thing I didn’t bring all my money with me. I wondered how the vendors get to pick their positions in the gauntlet. Is it first one on the spot, or do they pay for the privilege? I felt sad for the vendors at the end of the line as they had no shot at my wallet, but they certainly gave it a valiant effort, waving a prized object at me while telling me, “I remember you! Cheaper, cheaper!” All I could do is wave goodbye.